We live in stressful times. In addition to the taxing pressures of a fast-paced society and a struggling economy, many of us feel the shadow of terrorism or war lurking in the background of our lives. Unfortunately, when the intensity or frequency of the stress in our lives is excessive, our bodies take a beating: we become like a rubber band stretched to its maximum, ready to snap.
Because we as Latter-day Saints understand the sacred nature of the body (see 1 Cor. 6:19–20), we know how important it is to maintain our mental and physical health. And in order to do this in today’s world, we must learn how to manage stress. Gospel practices—such as prayer, fasting, scripture study, service, priesthood blessings, and counseling with Church leaders—can be effective coping methods. Additional techniques include meditation, deep breathing, and exercise.
Regular exercise, which can be useful for anyone at any age or fitness level, is a healthy and highly effective approach to releasing the “rubber band” we have stretched tight in our lives. Exercise does not have to be unpleasant or intense to be useful for stress management. Most adults will find regular brisk walking to be a great tool in helping to soothe a stress-filled life. While 30–60 minutes of walking is optimal, 10–20 minutes can effectively serve as a calming balm. And when the going gets especially difficult, even a short 5–10 minute stroll can bring immediate stress relief.
Following is a list of six stress-reducing benefits of exercise:
Exercise can serve as a temporary diversion from our worries; escaping problems for short periods of time can revitalize and refresh us. Going for a bike ride or a walk around the block can afford temporary relief from the sting of stress and invigorate our bodies so we can again face the demands of the day.
Exercise strengthens our bodies and increases stamina. Research shows that even a short period of physical activity can lift our spirits, raise our metabolism, and counter feelings of fatigue. Furthermore, once we develop a reasonable level of fitness, we develop energy reserves that will allow us to participate more fully in work and play.
Exercise affords time for pondering and meditation. Walking, pedaling a stationary bike, or swimming laps requires little conscious thought. Therefore, exercise time can be used as a break to reflect and plan—valuable ingredients for good decision making and stress management.
Physical exertion during the day promotes more restful sleep at night. Physical activity facilitates the release of tension, promotes muscle relaxation, and allows sleep to occur naturally. Generally, individuals who exercise regularly can relax more completely and sleep more soundly than those who are not active, especially when under stressful conditions.
Exercise also tends to improve self-esteem and engender feelings of confidence, which are especially important in times of uncertainty. Since consistent participation in an exercise program takes self-discipline and hard work, faithful exercisers know they have persevered and accomplished something worthwhile. In general, those who exercise have greater confidence in themselves.
Finally, regular exercise generates a healthier perspective on life. A study of more than 7,000 adults conducted at Brigham Young University showed that while adults who exercise have the same number of demands and pressures as those who don’t exercise, exercisers perceive significantly fewer problems in their lives. Despite stressful circumstances, exercise brings a more positive outlook.
Exercise is not a cure-all; it will not eliminate stress or solve all of our problems. However, exercise will assist us in facing challenges with greater confidence and stamina. Because exercise so effectively releases tension built up in the body by stress, physical activity is something that should not be pushed aside in day-to-day life. Each of us has a right and a responsibility to take care of the body that the Lord has given us. When it comes to managing stress, maintaining health, and improving quality of life, exercise is well worth the effort.